The idea of airbrushing or filtering a selfie might seem modern, but new conservation work conducted on a 17th-century painting underscores the fact that adding beauty enhancements to one’s likeness is a well-worn tradition.
Conservators assessing a portrait of Diana Cecil, an English noblewoman who belonged to a powerful family at the Jacobean court, found that a later artist, perhaps in the 19th century, plumped up her lips and added more curls to her hairline to make her forehead seem smaller, reports Constance Kampfner for the London Times.
Cecil was the great-granddaughter of William Cecil, First Baron Burghley, a close friend and adviser of Tudor queen Elizabeth I. She lived from 1596 to 1654 and was hailed as “one of the great beauties of the age,” according to the statement.
Still, as the ages change, so do beauty standards, and Cecil’s reputation as a natural stunner may not have aligned with the tastes of later generations. Long after Cornelius Johnson painted Cecil’s likeness, another artist altered her appearance.
When English Heritage began conserving Cecil’s portrait, it was significantly damaged. Someone had rolled the canvas widthways, possibly prompting the cosmetic alterations as part of an effort to cover up the damage. What’s more, a layer of varnish had settled over the painting’s surface.
“I am often amazed by the vivid and rich colors that reveal themselves as I remove old, yellowing varnish from portraits,” says Alice Tate-Harte, English Heritage’s collections conservator, in the statement. “But finding out Diana’s features had been changed so much was certainly a surprise.”
In addition to restoring Cecil’s original visage, the conservation work uncovered the exact year that Johnson created the painting. The signature of the artist and the date 1634 (four years earlier than originally thought) were hidden under varnish on the curtain at the top of the painting.
Cecil’s portrait is far from the only one to undergo changes to match more recent beauty standards. A 16th-century portrait of Isabella de’ Medici, a noblewoman whose husband may have killed her for having an illicit affair with his cousin, was so thoroughly changed that experts initially misidentified it as a painting of her mother, Eleanor of Toledo. Later, staff at the Carnegie Museum of Art suspected the portrait was a fake, so they conducted a radiological analysis to be sure.
“Something about the saccharine smirk, flawless complexion, sculpted nose and perfectly tapered chin, depicted in the work as it originally came to the museum in 1978, just didn’t ring true,” writes BBC Culture’s Kelly Grovier. But what many presumed to be a fake turned out to be a genuine likeness.
Grovier adds, “What stared back from the X-rays was someone else entirely—a far more convincing face of an older, wearier woman with peaky skin, a slightly hooked nose, circles under her eyes, [a] double chin and hammy hands. In other words, a real person.”
Cecil’s portrait wasn’t as radically altered as Medici’s, but both demonstrate the potential follies of overcorrecting someone’s likeness.
“While the original reason for overpainting could have been to cover damage from the portrait being rolled, the restorer certainly added their own preferences to ‘sweeten’ her face,” says Tate-Harte in the statement. “I hope I’ve done Diana justice by removing those additions and presenting her natural face to the world.”